Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Legacy of Slaughterhouse Five

What made this novel so popular?

Okay folks, the mystery is over since I’ve already given away the answer in the title. The question was: What was one of the most influential novels of all time? And the answer of course is, Slaughterhouse-Five. And who is the sexy starlette? Find out below.

 Vonnegut had been working on it for over 20 years. My take on this novel is that, much like his main character, Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut himself was stuck in time for those 23 years and suddenly became “unstuck” and outlined this novel within a linear structure, allowing his stream of consciousness regarding the science fiction portions of the novel to take over. This juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy is a classic example of what I mentioned in last week’s Post, and one of the factors that make this book so successful.

Greek theatre tragedies /comedies made use of this literary device thousands of years ago, a technique that Vonnegut takes to extremes in Slaughterhouse-Five. This is the same device used in To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, and in many of Cormac McCarthy’s novels. Where is the tragedy in Rye? Remember the ending? Its protagonist does not literally die, but just as well, as he is dead to the realities of life due to mental illness. Close enough. Tragic enough for this reader.

This device is like fire and ice, in that tragedy is heightened by comedy.  Two opposing forces that complement each other for better or for worse. Have you ever tried filling a tragic moment with levity? There you have it. This is the reasoning behind the tragicomedy “formula” and it works every time. Not because it is a clever literary device, but because it is organic to the human experience. When tragedy strikes, we want to soften the blow, deflect the agony, channel the pain in another direction. Thusly, we justify all the horrible events we don’t want appearing in our lives with humor. The moments we don’t want to be a part of because they remind us of our own mortality and how fragile and unpredictable life really is. This is what drives stories such as this one.

Many things can, and have been written regarding this novel, and I will not repeat or review them here or even attempt to reveal the many devices used to structure this book, other than what I've already stated. That’s already been done and a blog Post will do it no justice. The curious details are in the story. Read the book and watch the movie by the same title, which are excellent studies in both literature and film--a cinematic excursion into the making of a great classic.

The essence of this story is a study in the absurdities of war. And how better to discuss the ironies and absurdities than to juxtapose the tragic alongside the comic. This is what Vonnegut has succeeded so brilliantly in doing. He pulls no punches and makes no excuses, as he presents this semi-autobiographical work depicting his experience as a POW and the bombing of Dresden, Germany during WWII, systematically cutting into this senseless act with the comedic meanderings of Billy Pilgrim—his desire and search for another life—a perfect life, one with an exotic centerfold starlette. Isn’t this the dream of most men, after all? The dream of most women I suspect just as much. Take that any way you want.

With the bit of information that I’ve just revealed about this story, it’s easy to see why it was revolutionary in its time, yet just as relevant today. Vonnegut deals with two fundamental truths in life--death and irony, and everyone can relate to that.  (Life’s a bitch and then you die.) This universal message, plus many other factors, many details that permeate this story, expose it to debate, controversy, and more questions than answers, especially the story’s ending, which has been copied by many (porno) film-makers ever since. I won’t give it away, of course, in case you haven’t read the book or seen the movie—two things which I highly recommend. Although’ I’m sure you didn’t need my endorsement after I used the word “porno”, even parenthetically.

This book and the movie were ahead of their time, in that the content was considered risqué at the time of publication and its film debut in 1972, but also ahead of its time in the sense that science fiction merged with reality in such a forceful and meaningful way, as if Vonnegut had invented an entirely new genre, which I believe he did to an extent. In my view, we should give Vonnegut credit as one of the most influential novelists of our time for several reasons as opposed to seeing him and his work as some sort of second rate, fringe element hack job.

The fact remains, Vonnegut became much more than a sci-fi writer because of Slaughterhouse-Five. The musings in this story, its statement in opposition to war is profound and heartfelt, despite its fictive elements, which either way serve to enhance, or play up both the tragedies of war and life’s tragedies and ironies for the sake of humanity itself. (Tears here.)

Okay enough, let’s get to the real reason you wandered back here. Who’s the lovely lady that played the centerfold starlette in the film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five? She is Valerie Perrine, and still looks just as sexy today. She was in fact a Playboy Centerfold in the August issue in 1981.  See all her pix here. She is amazing and has preserved her beautiful figure throughout the years. She certainly caught my eye in the film and she aced her role as Billy Pilgrim's fantasy girl, and in the process became every guy’s fantasy from then on, and still is I suspect.

What else can be said? Enjoy the pix.

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Still working on the Star-Trek Post. Stay tuned. BTW, that's a photo of my Slaughterhouse Five Hardcover 1st Edition Book. And even though it's a Book Club Edition, some of these can be quite valuable. Either way I don't intend to sell it. I'm just happy I won the bid on eBay. (Whatever.)